By the nature of their training, most engineers and scientists focus on the problems they are solving, not ones they have solved. One of the reasons this occurs stems from the scientific method, which most engineers and scientists are taught in school. The scientific method teaches a methodical pessimism about what is observed and why it is occurring. This pessimism ensures great science but lousy status reporting. This is the main reason most technical people have such a difficult time telling the whole truth.
Telling the whole truth is critical to your survival. Overly pessimistic status reports or tension filled one-on-ones, over time, will reduce managements confidence in your ability. This does not mean you sugar coat bad news or lie — that helps no one. What it does mean is that you are fair and balanced as to the situation your team is in. This concept gives most Technical Managers (TMers) heartburn since they don’t see the value in minimizing real problems or celebrating small victories. They usually only focus on the bad news since that is what needs fixing. Focusing on what is broken is important but you must also remember that you are the face of the effort to fix problems. If you give off a doom and gloom, this will never work, your management will start to believe you and take the appropriate steps – like canceling the project or getting someone else to run it.
The frustrating thing about technical people is most are optimistic if you pry it out of them. Try this experiment. Ask a techie how their day is going and what they are doing. Chances are, you will hear about every problem, every bug or every unreasonable deadline they are working on. Now, ask them what is going right. Chances are, they will stare at you in stunned silence even though they just shipped the latest product, crushed ten more bugs or invented the next better mouse trap. Remember, most senior managers don’t have the time to do this dance to get the whole truth out of every direct report. They rely on you, the eyes and ears of your group, to tell what is going right and what needs work. This is an awesome responsibility that you need to take seriously. Your chain of command knows that things will go wrong but they also want to know that you have a handle on it. You do this by telling them the whole truth.
I first realized the importance of telling the whole truth when my team actually had good news to report. We also had bad news but the good news far out weighted the bad. What we had achieved was a first for the company. No other group in the company’s history ever made a radio . Now, it did not meet every specification, which was the bad news, but we did wirelessly transmit and successful decode data over a 10 meter distance. This was a huge deal. It was the culmination of years of work and tens of millions of dollars. How did I report it? It was a single bullet point, three points down, on a slide with six problem bullet points. That was it. What do you think became the focus of the whole meeting, You guessed it, all of the remaining six problems with almost no mention of the tremendous milestone that was achieved. So did I actually communicate the whole truth? Not even close.
Thankfully, I had a great management mentor who took me aside and explained to me that while what I said was technically true, it did not give the executive managers a true picture of the state of the project. The goal of the whole true is to create a picture, in the executives mind, of the true state of the project. In my case, the project was going great and we had a few things to fix. Instead, what they heard was: it’s not done and has all of these problems. I needed to tell the whole truth and I failed.
My mentor’s premise was simple: Tell them what works, what doesn’t and what you are doing about it. This simple method allows you to focus on all aspects of what is going on. It gives you the opportunity to give proper weight to all parts of the project: achievements, problems and solutions. Remember, that what you say may not be what is heard. You need to ensure that your words, tone and materials have the desired effect. Senior managers are busy. They tend to filter what you say and only remember simple things that are reinforced. So, even though you might have great news, it needs to be presented with the right attitude and delivery.
Telling the whole truth takes practice but it is achievable. The best way to practice is to find someone outside your group that you trust. Maybe a marketing or sales guy and ask them to help you work on your delivery. Your delivery is the key to communicating your message. How you stand, what you say or don’t say will craft an impression that will be all they remember. Remember to tell them what works, what doesn’t and what you will do about it. This is the best way to tell the whole truth.